The ABCs of ABCD - A Reflection on the Asset-Based Community Development Short Course

February 21, 2022

After a wonderful weekend a few weeks ago on February 4th - 6th, we wanted to share our experience and reflections about the ABCD short course. In partnership with the School of City and Regional Planning, Serve-Learn-Sustain offered a short course on the basics of Asset-Based Community Development. “ABCD,” as it’s known, was founded by John McKnight and Jody Kretzman, who as local organizers and community researchers in Chicago, came to believe that existing deficit-focused frameworks for development missed what fundamentally animates and defines communities: their assets. Students of many ages and backgrounds attended the course, from undergraduates, to graduate students, to community partners outside of Georgia Tech.

To start off the weekend on Friday, we met in the Kendeda building to learn more about the basics of ABCD and participate in activities and discussions with other students in the class. It was very cool to hear the stories and experiences from diverse participants of varying experiences. During the session, we did an activity, where we were split into two teams and had to draft recommendations for a community based on a list of characteristics we received. It was great to see the discussion we had in the teams as well as the larger group, especially after learning that the community was the same one, with one list describing community assets and the other describing perceived deficits. During the open conversation throughout the session, it was interesting to hear the thoughts from different students and look at ABCD in terms of small to larger scale- for example, we talked about organizations like Free99 Fridge vs. larger ones. We were able to think further into topics including matters of the intentionality of organizations and solving problems while thinking about larger systemic issues. We learned that different scales can coexist and that through ABCD the goal is to connect assets. And while businesses and institutions may have flaws, they are extremely important when helping to navigate challenges in communities. We have learned that being able to share the importance of a community-first approach can help shift the conversation from being strictly business and getting things checked off to one that aims to work with communities.

We began Saturday with a virtual session working in groups on learning more about examples of ABCD in action in different communities. The three case studies were the UK Department of Energy & Climate Change - Community Energy Strategy: People Powering Change, the Chicago & Cleveland Community Climate Action, and Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. During the breakouts, we thought more about how the organization's programs were creating larger systems change compared to smaller and community-level change. We also looked more closely into the ABCD principles and key takeaways from discussions. This session was a great opportunity to learn more about what different organizations and communities have been working on- a key takeaway that we had was “Never do for people what they can do for themselves - Don’t do for me without me.” It was really great to see examples that prioritize local resident participation, identifying connecting and mobilizing assets, and engaging gifts from marginalized people and groups. After, we split into groups and went on the site visits - either Clarkston or Sweet Auburn.

At the Sweet Auburn visit, we started the day eating lunch together at the Municipal Curb Market. As soon as we walked into the market, it was a sensory overload in the best way possible- the wonderful sights and smells and seeing the movement of people entering, sitting down to eat, and leaving the space. We had a tour with Director Pam Joiner about the history of the market. It was inspiring to learn more about the opportunities and vision that they had in creating an environment where small businesses could share their products with everyone. Many of the vendors there have been able to expand to different locations and grow their businesses since first opening in the market. It was also fascinating to see the hydroponics room that they have created. 

The next location we visited was the historic Water Tower. We were at a loss for words for the experience. We were joined by artist Charmaine Minniefield (@blackangelatl) and local resident and neighborhood association member Mike Megehee who shared more about the tower’s history and stories of the community. As we learned about the aspirations and visions for the artwork, we stood in awe looking up at the top of the tower and around the base at the beautiful mural. The cold air was masked by the warmth of people as we discussed the history of the site, stories of the community, and how it has changed over time. We could feel the passion for the community through their commitment to ensuring that the culture, personality, and stories of the residents are continuing to be felt and seen rather than ignoring it as the demographics are changing. To conclude we all sang “freedom” in the tower and the crisp echo of our voices filled the air along with hope and positivity and a reminder of our place and the grounds we were standing on that day. We also were able to hear from Dr. Mike Hatcher, a Georgia Tech alumni, who is a builder with Sovereign Construction. We learned of some of the projects that his company had going on and his approach to working within communities when working on new development and construction projects.

The next stop was at the Haugabrooks Event Space hearing from Chenee Joseph about the HDDC (Historic District Development Corporation) and SAGE (Sweet Auburn Green & Equitable District). HDDC’s goal is to, “restore the area to the proud, economically diverse, and viable community that once existed as it maintains its historic character while preventing displacement of long-term residents.” We heard more about the different projects that are happening in the community and more about their story of how they have been working to pave the way for redevelopment efforts in the community despite navigating redlining, permitting, and other setbacks. We took a lot away from hearing more about their process of creating visions and ideas among members of the community and having them be leaders of the process. One example that was shared was how a mail and package station in one of their new development projects were not in the plans until members brought it up in one of their community design sessions. At the event space throughout the open room, there were some of the boards that were used in the design charrettes and meetings with interactive activities of having people put stickers and write ideas down about different concepts that caught their eye. Also throughout the space was an art exhibit where we saw beautiful pieces in a central location where people can gather and celebrate the stories, culture, and gifts in the community. As we were in the space, Chenee shared her story of an asset connection that happened with her just the other day: through one quick phone call, she was able to learn more about the Municipal Curb Market’s mission and work and they are now working together to share ideas about opportunities they are working on! It was very inspiring to see how connections and relationships could be formed so quickly between groups with similar missions and values working in the same community.

In response to the day’s visits, participant Miguel Jimenez said: “Atlanta, personally, is often seen as a rundown, unwelcoming place, and going on the trip made me shift my perspective and understand that there are a lot of people in communities working to change that. I have learned the importance of getting in touch with others and how groups are improving the conditions in creative ways, and I am now more familiar with it and appreciate Atlanta more.”

On Sunday, we returned to the Kendeda building and the Eco Commons to learn about equity and ABCD in the built environment. The day started with an overview from Jason Gregory of where we stood in relation to the natural watersheds in the area, such as that of Tanyard Creek and the Chattahoochee River. It was helpful to understand the ecological basis in terms of water for Atlanta and Georgia Tech campus, as a main goal of the Eco-Commons is to develop integrated, ecologically-based landscape and open-space systems, including that of stormwater management. Jason went on to talk about the Eco-Commons as an 80-acre performance-based landscape, one that enhances the current living, working, and learning environment of the area; unites the campus with a sense of place; increases the tree canopy; and reduces 50% reduction of stormwater runoff.

Stormwater management was mentioned often during the day, especially in the context of equity. Jason went over how Atlanta historically uses a combined sewer system, in which stormwater runoff is combined with sewage in the city’s infrastructural piping. This often resulted in toxic overflows into the Chattahoochee during major weather events, affecting different areas along the watershed. Darryl Haddock from West Atlanta Watershed Alliance (WAWA) went into the effects of this kind of runoff, such as Alfred Tucker’s (from the Proctor Creek Stewardship Council) memories from growing up in the Proctor Creek Watershed. He talked about the cultural value of the creeks, such as their use for baptisms, and his memories of playing in the water as a child- being careful to avoid the polluted areas from runoff, the “doo-doo creeks” near the sewer manufacturing plant. This perspective brought in the idea of landscape as a cultural entity, with memories embedded in open spaces, waterways, circulation, and buildings. With this understanding in mind, it is easier to visualize landscape as a key component of equity.

After our discussion of the Eco-Commons, we moved into the tours for the day. Jimmy Mitchell (SKANSKA), Darryl, and Kayley led our tour of the Kendeda building, and we were thus able to get different perspectives on the equity measures and systems that went into it under the Living Building Challenge. We discussed some of the stormwater management systems in the building, such as green stormwater management and rainwater collection, which function with the goal of making it as if no building was there. It was interesting to hear about the difference between green stormwater management vs. potable water storage, both of which are present in the building. Green stormwater management in the forms of permeable paving and surfaces surround the Kendeda building that allows stormwater to be cleaned as it permeates the soil and returns to the natural water table and rainwater collection off of the solar panels on the roof of the building that is piped down to storage tanks in the building for potable water needs. The discussion shifted to the equity contexts to systems like these- our tour guides mentioned how technologies such as this are easily unequal, as creating individual potable systems (especially in the communities that can afford them, which tend to be wealthy) can take infrastructure and resources away from city systems. In the discussion, they compared this issue with that of public and private schools- as wealthier communities contribute resources to private systems/schools, their resources are taken away from the public school system, forcing the financial burden on poorer communities.

We then joined Karcheik Sims-Alvarado (Preserve Black Atlanta), Todd Michney (School of History and Sociology), and Jason for a tour of the Eco-Commons and the Contemplative Plaza at the former Pickrick site. Jason’s tour detailed the ecological systems in the Eco-Commons, including the unique infiltration-cell system for water collection and drainage on the site. This related back to our conversation about the sewer systems in Atlanta, as the surfaces in the Eco-Commons were specifically designed to allow stormwater to permeate into the ground, where it does not contribute to sewer system overflow and is able to be naturally cleaned as it seeps into the ground. Jason led us through some of the more interactive elements of the Eco-Commons as well, including the edible landscape, the art installation by Patrick Dougherty, and the slides. These elements cement the Eco-Commons as not only a high-performance landscape but one that also facilitates fun interactions between visitors.

Karcheik led us in a discussion of the Contemplative Plaza, which is built upon the location of the former Pickrick restaurant and was owned by Lester Maddox. While it stood, the restaurant was a painful symbol of white resistance to the civil rights movement. We discussed Maddox’s role in personifying and profiting from the hatred and racist sentiments left in the South after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and how his violent actions against three Black theology students from the Interdenominational Theological Center - George Willis Jr., Woodrow Lewis, and Albert Dunnand,  who attempted to be served at the restaurant after the Act passed- cemented his popularity among segregationists, leading him to a governorship later on. We also discussed the history of the site itself, and how the restaurant’s building was used by the Georgia Tech Police Department for many years after the Pickrick closed. It was necessary and culturally significant for the restaurant to be torn down, and for the plaza to be made in remembrance of the students who took a stand against Maddox.

The next activity of the day was a group workshop in which students and guest speakers created posters detailing ideas for implementing equity and ABCD principles in a response to one of three prompts: re-design the Kendeda Building and/or Eco-Commons from an ABCD perspective; develop a plan for using ABCD to engage the campus and surrounding communities in the building and landscape; or incorporate ABCD into the LBC 4.0 rating system (one or more petals). Teams were able to create visuals to illustrate their takeaways from the weekend in the form of strategies for ABCD implementation, as well as see and vote on other teams’ ideas. This activity really helped to visualize strategies that we could take forward in our developed understanding of ABCD. Lastly, we had the opportunity to meet with Camille Liverpool from the Georgia Tech Career Center. She helped us to describe the sessions from the weekend in a way that could be put into a resume or cover letter, which was not only a great way to summarize what we learned but also helped us to understand ABCD as something we can facilitate as part of our future careers.

Although the course flew by during the weekend we spent together, we are excited by what we have taken away and are inspired to continue to apply these concepts to our coursework and research. There was direct applicability and it inspired ideas and new opportunities for our VIP Team - Building for Equity and Sustainability. We wish it could have been longer, but enjoyed the memories, conversations, and experiences of the course!